Gallic charmers: we reveal France's prettiest ski villages

Tired of brutalist French resorts? We reveal the ski destinations with mountains of Gallic charm.Thursday, 31 October 2019

Home-cooked food, rustic charm and the smell of wood smoke in the air. Whenever someone mentions skiing in France, these are the things that pop into my head. In reality, however, I’m often left wanting. While the skiing itself is world-class — especially if you’re heading to one of the ‘super-resorts’, such as Les Arcs, Val d’Isère or Trois Vallées — the off-slope experience often lacks, well, Frenchness. You may get ski-in, ski-out access and multiple restaurants under one roof, but generally this comes at the expense of Gallic charm, heritage and authenticity. Put simply, in most cases you could be anywhere. 

Cue St Martin de Belleville. Within easy reach of the main Les Trois Vallées area but tucked away in the Belleville Valley, this centuries-old village ticks all the Francophile boxes. Arriving there after a two-hour drive from Geneva Airport, I wind down the window and breathe in the sweet smell of wood smoke, seasoned with the aroma of cow dung from nearby farms. 

It may still have been the Easter holidays but here in St Martin life was plodding along peacefully, as it has done for centuries — a far cry from the lift queues and crowds in resorts just a stone’s throw away. Down in the village, I find sleepy, family-run cafes and restaurants huddled around the central square, surrounded by houses that — from a distance — looked like they were slipping down the hillside. In short: charming. But full disclosure: if you’re looking for an apres-ski party scene, this isn’t the place to come. 

As well as top-notch skiing and French Alpine culture, I also wanted full-blown luxury, so I’d booked myself in to Chalet Abode, a five-minute drive from the village centre, where hosts Rosie and James swooped in the moment I arrived, armed with cups of tea and homemade carrot cake. 

Abode is one of three luxurious Alpine Club chalets in St Martin; they, along with six others, are part of the White Mountain Chalets portfolio. All share the same philosophy: good food, fine wines and on-demand service (including childcare) makes for happy guests. At £7,600 a week (and that’s low season), Abode isn’t cheap. But if you split the cost between 10 of you, it starts to look doable. 

From where I am sitting, it feels like a bargain. While Nathan the in-house chef prepared dinner, I sit back with my feet up — birdsong reverberating off the balcony roof as I stare at the surrounding peaks. 

Although this tranquillity comes from trading the instant, slope-side access of Méribel, Courchevel and Val Thorens, I’m by no means out on a limb here. Next morning, it takes James just five minutes to drive me to the village lifts; from here, I have all 373 miles of the Trois Vallées’ slopes at my feet.

With excellent lifts and 328 pistes, it’s easy to cherry-pick terrain. As a skiing newbie, having recently switched from snowboarding, I’m happy to cruise the blues 8,800ft above St Martin, where it’s still cold enough for the snow to be in great nick — even in early April. 

One of my favourite routes leads to the edge of Les Menuires, where the Granges chairlift whisks me up to the Three Marches peak. I drop into a wide, groomed piste that takes me down through a gully — funnelling me back out in front of the lift, ready for a repeat run. As a snowboarder at heart — enamoured by the bliss of riding powder — I’ve never understood why people go on so much about ‘corduroy’ (ridges in the snow fresh from piste grooming). Suddenly, though, it all makes sense. Crouching low and leaning into my boots, I let the skis run — the edges biting into the snow as if they were on rails.

From the top of Three Marches, it takes 40 minutes to get back to St Martin — just one, gloriously uninterrupted run down. At the base, everything’s been designed to maximise your slope time — lunch being just a short shuffle from the lift, where family-friendly restaurants are serving delicious homemade burgers. At €70 (£63) for four, eating out here is pricey; but by the second day I’d sniffed out the village boulangerie, where ham baguettes were a fraction of the price. 

This pretty much set the tone for the week. On the one occasion when I decided to cut my skiing short — clouds having rolled in and spoiled the views — I simply texted James from the top of the run and he was there waiting when I arrived back at the base. Within half an hour of deciding I’d had enough, I was back at the chalet in front of the fire with a cuppa and a book. Who needs ski-in, ski-out? 

How to do it
The Alpine Club has a week at Chalet Abode from £875 per person, full board. Hire the whole place (sleeps 10) from £7,600. A six-day pass costs from €244 (£220) per person; under-fives go free. More info: les3vallees.com

Three more... pretty French pistes

Bonnéval-sur-Arc
Tucked away in the Maurienne valley, this picture-postcard village has barely changed in centuries. A five-minute chairlift whisks you up to a series of runs, which mostly cater to beginners and intermediates. But what makes Bonnéval worth the trip is the vast off-piste potential. After a day of this you’ll be ready for steaming plate of boeuf bourgignon at the family-run Auberge d’Oul restaurant back in the village; it feels like you’re dining in someone’s private home. 

Les Gets
If you’re looking for traditional Alpine charm with the option of buzzy nightlife, then Les Gets should definitely be on your list. Just up the road from busier Morzine, on the southern edge of the Portes du Soleil ski area, you’ll find hillsides awash with wooden chalets. If you’re after cruisey stuff, take the La Rosta run for big arcing blue turns. Le Vaffieu is the pick of the slope-side restaurants, with carved wooden knick-knacks and centuries-old farming kit that nods to an Alpine past.

Samoëns
Centered around a lovely old stone church, this is first and foremost a working Alpine town; the skiing is excellent too, with over 160 miles of pistes to explore across the Grand Massif. Beginners and intermediates are well catered to around Samoëns, with challenging backcountry towards Flaine, where abseiling down frozen waterfalls is on offer. From here, carve fresh lines through the trees, arriving in the village of Sixt, where a ski bus will take you back to Samoëns.

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Published in the Winter Sports guide, distributed in the November 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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Within easy reach of the Les Trois Vallées ski area, the centuries-old village of St Martin de Belleville ticks all the Francophile boxes.
Within easy reach of the Les Trois Vallées ski area, the centuries-old village of St Martin de Belleville ticks all the Francophile boxes.
photo by Vincent Lottenberg
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